“Oi DD, we’re doing Star Frontiers on the next pod, I need 1500 words from you, stat!”Dirk the Dice, host of The GROGNARD files RPG Podcast
Hmm, the latest assignment from his messianic megalomaniac-ness was going to be a bit of a problem. You see, Star Frontiers hardly featured in White Dwarf magazine. It was reviewed in Open Box, issue #37, where Andy Slack commented that the combat system was “in the heroic style with people missing each other like crack Imperial Stormtroopers”, but also noted that space travel was “virtually ignored”, before giving it a respectable 7 out of 10. Apart from that though, the only time Star Frontiers appeared was in those back-page adverts where TSR cheekily referred to their science fiction RPG as “the ‘playable’ one”. Naughty.
But anyway, what’s a Daily Dwarf to do? Well, it turns out there were other RPG magazines back in the day, and the dangerous combination of lockdown, red wine and ebay has meant I’ve acquired a fair few of them recently.
So, tonight Matthew, I’m going to be… *emerges from swirling dry ice* … Intermittent Imagine!
Imagine, TSR UK’s RPG magazine from the mid-80s, (unsurprisingly) had a decent amount of coverage of Star Frontiers – plenty for us to dig into. I should note at the outset though that I’ve never played Star Frontiers, and don’t really know that much about it apart from its reputation for having an interesting mix of alien races. So, the following comments are made in something of a state of ignorance. But when have I ever let that stop me before?
The game itself was reviewed in the very first issue, where Jim Bambra was broadly positive about the game, noting its emphasis on pulp adventure, while acknowledging the soon-to-be infamous lack of starship rules in the initial boxed set. There were a smattering of module reviews in subsequent issues, and Star Frontiers also put in an occasional appearance in the Dispel Confusion Q&A column, Imagine’s feature for rules lawyers everywhere. Apart from that though, all the Star Frontiers content in the magazine consisted of adventures – this struck me at first glance as a notable contrast with the coverage of Traveller in White Dwarf; there were no articles on hard SF minutiae, or discussions on different cosmological models here.
But how did the adventures stack up?
First out of the gate was Aramax One by John Tantoblin in issue #4, which opened with a classic SF RPG set-up: a mysterious patron pays the player characters to indulge in a little light industrial sabotage. This gave the PCs the opportunity for some ‘Metal Gear Solid’-style infiltration of a technical facility, having to do the job against the clock. The Tim e constraint injected a nice sense of urgency, enabling the GM to keep the pace of the adventure ticking along, with events likely to end in a good old firefight.
Reading it now, it amused me to notice this was science fiction as seen through the lens of the 1980s – the state-of-the-art computer installation consisting of a number of large beige cabinets being one more obvious example. A solid start for Star Frontiers in the magazine, then; some “traditional” SF tropes, with one or two dashes of humour. This scenario was also picked by Dave Paterson on the Frankenstein’s RPG podcast as an ideal introductory SF adventure – check out series 2 episode 9 to hear his thoughts.
Next up, a bit of a cheat? The Fire Opal of Set in issue #14 was mainly written as a Traveller scenario, but was listed on the contents page as being for Star Frontiers too, even if that just amounted to a small box on the final page, explaining how to convert the stats with this solid advice: “don’t worry too much about the numbers”. Ah, but how could I not include an adventure from the mind of Bryan Talbot, set in the multi-dimensional worlds of Luther Arkwright, that started with a player introduction in the form of a comic illustrated by Talbot himself?
This scenario was most definitely a cut above the norm. Taking Bryan Talbot’s initial ideas, a team from Imagine – Mike Brunton, Jim Bambra and Paul Cockburn – fashioned an epic dimension-hopping adventure, tasking the PCs to retrieve information on a potent doomsday device, while evading the dark influence across the parallels of the sinister Disruptors. There was a very open structure to the main body of the adventure, with plenty of scope for player ingenuity, although care was required as it struck me the scenario also featured a high level of lethality. With plenty of cool, flavourful tech, and characters and locations drawn from Bryan Talbot’s fertile imagination, this really looked to conjure the authentic feeling of adventuring in the worlds of Luther Arkwright, in an exciting race against time for the PCs. The only problem for me? I wanted more – I couldn’t help feeling there’s a follow-up adventure still waiting to be written. (Bryan listens to the pod, right?)
Maybe Star Frontiers isn’t the obvious choice of system for this scenario, but I could imagine a GM already familiar with the system would be tempted to tackle it – with pre-gen characters supplied, it’s perfect for a one-shot. Dirk of course did just this (albeit with Mythras); check out episode 9 of the pod, and the Grognard Files website, for Dirk and Blythy’s discussion.
NIGHT OF THE KNIGHT HAWK
In issue #18, Mike Brunton gave us the adventure On the Rocks for Star Frontiers – now with added spaceships! Yes, addressing that egregious deficiency, the scenario was built around the East Indiaman, a new spaceship class for the game. Hired as salvage crew, the PCs had to check out a spaceship that had crashed on an asteroid, while dealing with rival concerns trying their best to stop them. The set-up for the adventure was quite straightforward, almost spare, and I think would require additional work from the GM to add embellishments to bring it “alive”. For me, there wasn’t much, apart from one or two alien NPCs, to mark this out as a distinctively Star Frontiers scenario; the situation – with the PCs caught up in the machinations of commercial rivals – felt much more like a typical Traveller scenario. The emphasis on the tech reinforced this impression; half of the page count was given over to detailed specs and deck plans for the East Indiaman Class Freighter, for those that like that sort of thing. Sadly though, there was no mention of any pot plants in the state rooms.
Finally, just prior to the demise of the magazine itself, we had The Sarafand File in issue #29. This was another ‘Team Imagine’ production, with an original design by Paul Vernon and Sean Masterson then further developed by Mike Brunton and Jim Bambra, taking as their inspiration the works of British science fiction author Bob Shaw. Rather than presenting a single adventure, this feature consisted of a number of scenario outlines – in the style of Traveller’s 76 Patrons – centred around The Cartographical Service, a planetary survey organisation from Shaw’s Ship of Strangers stories, and the Sarafand class explorer spaceship. I have to say, the authors didn’t exactly sell this as a compelling opportunity for gaming when they wrote: “a final problem with the missions undertaken by a Sarafand class explorer is that many of them are boringly routine, which does not aid in making the game exciting.” Hmm.
What of the scenario outlines? What missions were available for our budding PC space cartographers? Did they provide an exciting escape from the tedium of surveying planets? Well, there was an interesting mix:
- Investigating a lifeless world that may not be all it seems.
- What happens when an away team lose contact with the mothership.
- Identifying an unknown saboteur on board the survey ship.
A couple had more than a faint air of familiarity about them:
- Investigating a wrecked ship, potentially carrying “something” deadly back on board.
- Dealing with a malfunctioning ship’s computer with megalomaniacal tendencies.
These last two didn’t so much wear their influences on their sleeves, as announce them with a blaring neon-lit klaxon. But hey, if you’re going to steal ideas, steal from the best.
A ROAD MORE TRAVELLED
All the adventure seeds, plus the details of the survey ship itself, were dual-statted for Traveller as well as Star Frontiers, but done properly this time, with some thought given as to how The Cartographical Service could be integrated into the Star Frontiers setting. I couldn’t help but feel though that this article was primarily developed with Traveller in mind; it had that blue-collar science fiction aesthetic I always associate with classic Traveller.
In fact, this struck me about all the Star Frontiers adventures in Imagine – saving The Fire Opal of Set, which was very much its own thing – they all felt like Traveller scenarios, the “dirty” science fiction of cynical corporations, of individuals trying to get by in an uncaring environment, and maybe make a few bucks along the way. They didn’t strike me as pulp adventures with noble heroes, strange worlds and bizarre aliens, the shiny, day-glo space opera of Flash Gordon or Star Wars. As I said at the start, these are just my impressions, not having played the game – maybe these scenarios do have more of a pulp feel in play?
I wonder whether, by the mid 1980s, Traveller already had its hooks deeply embedded into the minds of UK gamers, so that when they thought of science fiction, they immediately thought of Traveller? White Dwarf had already helped to sell Traveller to the British gaming masses; Imagine itself, despite being TSR’s house magazine, also featured Traveller-only articles from the likes of Marcus L Rowland and Paul Vernon. Maybe it was already too late for Star Frontiers?
I guess I need to roll some dice and find out.